Review: Sherwood Nation, Benjamin Parzybok

Preorder <i>Sherwood Nation</i> from Small Beer Press

In a Pacific Northwest beset by hourly more plausible, climate change induced desertification, the city of Portland struggles under strict water and power rationing, while the government and the rich glut themselves on hoarded resources. A plucky group of rebels arises to oppose them in the name of the people, annexing the poor Northeast neighborhood to create a tiny utopian state within city limits. Idealism, triumph, smashed idealism and tragedy ensue, along with a healthy share of the soulstring-resonatingly surreal.

“…You’d need a mask and a horse, obviously.”

“Mm, spurs.”

An eerie clop clop clop sounded through the open window and they looked at each other in amazement.

“A horse!” she said. “You’re a conjurer!”

But instead it was a big moose that stumbled along the dusty street, its skin tight over its ribs. Its head jerked left and right in anxious, almost animatronic movements.

“Oh no,” Renee said, “I fucking hate this. Josh saw a bear two days ago—I told you?”

They watched it continue down the street until a shot rang out. The moose’s body jerked and sidestepped strangely and then there was another shot.

“That’s a whole shit ton of extra food rations if they can store it,” Zach said as they watched men close in on it. “God knows how they’ll store it.” The moose stumbled again on a third shot but continued on.

“They’ve got to get a straight shot in.”

“I can’t watch,” Renee said. She climbed back in bed and spoke to Zach’s shirtless back as he watched the moose fall and the hunters try to drag the animal to the side of the road. “Hunters in the streets.”

“Dying of thirst has got to be worse,” Zach said.

Benjamin Parzybok’s Sherwood Nation is the sort of SF novel I’ve been waiting for someone to write, wishing I could write: a near-future utopian political adventure romp thought experiment. By page 50 I was crying and cheering. These are not common reactions for me when reading fiction; I wish they were. Now I’m waiting for someone to write the next one, while I struggle to do the same. Here’s hoping it be you.

It’s not nostalgic–no laser blasters, no spaceships with batwings and 50s car fins. It’s not escapist. No, okay, it’s escapist–dare I say all fiction is–but it escapes to something rather than from it? It’s not grimdark, where the escapism comes from reveling in hopelessness, forcing you to roll in hopelessness like a bully mashing your face in the mud so when you look up at the real world it briefly–falsely–looks less shitty. It’s realistic, it’s honest. It’s fun. It’s as fun as Parzybok’s first novel, Couch, which is saying a lot, and somehow it manages to be almost as silly even while realistic, sympathetic, human characters are making horrible decisions and getting killed. It’s full of heroic characters I can actually believe in, I can almost believe myself and the people I love capable of being like, in the right circumstances, under great pressure. And it puts those plausible heroes in a setting enough like our own that the hard solutions they find just might apply to the real world. And that is something we need. Something I don’t see SF or literary mainstream fiction or anything in between providing.

Parzybok manages to make it feel effortless, spontaneous and painstakingly well thought out at the same time.

It’s not perfect. Sometimes Sherwood Nation gets caught up in its own myth and falls into wish-fulfillment. But it’s not often. As often, we’re shown the kind of horrors a Fox News pessimist might imagine of a dictatorial/socialist utopia. And as in every other post-apocalypse setting I can think of, there’s handwaving. The question of where the water comes from, the long view of a droughted state, fades away for most of the book. But the focus is on the social and political aspects of revolution, people getting caught up in ideas, people resorting to each other in ways they don’t, can’t, in other than extraordinary circumstances. All Parzybok’s really clever ideas for surviving water shortage and living with power shortage on a citywide scale may be considered to take the place of SF wow-factor trappings in a more traditional postapocalyptic novel–I think of Bacigalupi’s spring guns and engineered elephants. They’re cool, they fit the setting, they inspire–and in so doing set the stage for the radical choices that drive the plot–they’re not the story. But unlike in Windup Girl, really unlike in anybody else’s SF I can think of, Parzybok’s wow-factor trappings are actually practicable, now, to actual beneficial result for the individual and the potential future of humanity. And for me, at least, and for us climate geeks who are the likely target audience, that plausibility does absolutely nothing to reduce the wow-factor itself.

I confess I love everything Parzybok has ever written. I know he’s not for everybody. But I’d argue Sherwood Nation is also the most accessible thing he’s written. So…if you’re anything like me…give it a try, won’t you?

Towards a Borgesian Mythos

I want there to be a Borgesian Mythos like there’s a Lovecraftian Mythos. Instead of, even. Lovecraft is worn out. Like Poe. You don’t even need me to enumerate the reasons, you know them. Whereas Borges is still and will I hope forevermore remain the shit. Mirrors, labyrinths, alephs, books, libraries, tigers, dreams, dreamtigers, roses, compass roses and every other easily encapsulated form of the infinite. Knives, swords, hronir, secret cults, the color yellow. Leibniz, Ramón Llull, Schopenhauer, De Quincey, Martín Fierro, Borges (both the fictional Borges and the real one). The Thousand and One Nights. The Quixote.

I said this to some people and they told me I should edit an anthology. That’s too much work. Also, it threatens to undermine the very purpose I’m trying to achieve. What happens when you edit a themed anthology? One of two things. First: it goes away. The original short fiction anthology as self-defeating prophecy. Once was enough, everybody stops caring about the idea and goes on with their tentacle porn. Second: everybody falls in love with it. Fifteen more of the same anthology come out, one from every micropress, until we’re all sick of it the way I’m sick of shoggoths and being asked to redeem that unsavory sociopath whose head is the World Fantasy Award.

(Can I get a bronze Borges head? Maybe I’ll commission one.)

So here’s this blog post instead.

Why isn’t there a Borgesian Mythos? There is–lurking just around the next corner in the library stacks, unassuming, impeccably researched, subtle, wry, brilliant, obscure.Christopher Brown did it hilariously in Strange Horizons. Umberto Eco, Roberto Bolaño and Mark Danielewski all perpetrate patently Borgesian fictions. One step further away one finds Jedediah Berry, Stephen Millhauser, Carlos Ruiz Zafon. One step closer, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Manuel Peyrou.

phobos

And me, yes, I do it. I’ve been trying to write Borgesian fiction for years. Not until lately have I (depending how stringently you’d like to define the term) succeeded. “The Immodest Demiurge Ezra Buckley” appears this week in Phobos Magazine. It’s a story based on a few lines from the postscript to “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” I’ll let you go look up. Panel notes where I came up with the idea are here. The title is modeled on a couple of his early “histories”, “The Cruel Redeemer Lazarus Morell” in particular. See also “Other Palimpsests” in Bibliotheca Fantastica, maybe my first attempt at Borgesianness, which went through quite a lot of iterations over years before I finally wandered across an enervated, obsessive academic POV ready to lose himself in an aleph-text, a page that is all pages.

bf-full-cover-72

The trouble with proposing a Borgesian Mythos–or of admitting you’ve contributed to one–is now you’ve talked about it. It’s not a secret cult anymore. Point it out and it ceases to be a fictional imposition on consensus reality, a comparative-cultural hronr like all those Borges fanboys in their yellow suits, and instead reverts to a fandom, the usual kind we all have to pick apart until it’s no fun anymore.

So forget what I just said. Forget all of it. This isn’t the blog you’re looking for.

Instead, just read this interview with Borges from 1966. He’s magic! Is there anything he hasn’t read? He’s like a santa claus of literature. Read the whole thing and tell me you don’t want to read about that guy for another couple thousand pages across all forms and genres.

Ready?

INTERVIEWER

You have said that a writer should never be judged by his ideas.

BORGES

No, I don’t think ideas are important.

INTERVIEWER

Well, then, what should he be judged by?

BORGES

He should be judged by the enjoyment he gives and by the emotions one gets. As to ideas, after all it is not very important whether a writer has some political opinion or other because a work will come through despite them, as in the case of Kipling’s Kim. Suppose you consider the idea of the empire of the English—well, in Kim I think the characters one really is fond of are not the English, but many of the Indians, the Mussulmans. I think they’re nicer people. And that’s because he thought them—No! No! Not because he thought them nicer—because he felt them nicer.

Lovecraft never said no such thing, let me tell you.

The defense rests.

Jorge Luis BORGES, Galleria Nazionale, Palermo, 1984

Willa Cather in Acoma

Abroad in the plain the scattered mesa tops, red with the afterglow, one by one lost their light, like candles going out. He was on a naked rock in the desert, in the stone age, a prey to homesickness for his own kind, his own epoch, for European man an his glorious history of desire and dreams. Through all the centuries that his own part of the world had been changing like the sky at daybreak, this people had been fixed, increasing neither in numbers nor desires, rock-turtles on their rock. Something reptilian he felt here, something that had endured by immobility, a kind of life out of reach, like the crustaceans in their armour.

—Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop

I have a never-to-be-published centaur story that expresses this sentiment pretty much exactly, even from the same setting, in grosser, less polished, but no less problematic terms. So many layers of interpretation to get through before we come across anything remotely like objective truth, yet the core meaning remains as plain as a scalpeled-open vein. I’ve felt this feeling and its accompanying shame.

This is Willa Cather, frontier-raised, classically educated white woman of the 1920s, writing from the limited experience of travel about a time and place eighty years and two thousand miles removed, the mesa-top, precolombian settlement of Acoma pueblo, New Mexico, as visited by a French missionary bishop in 1848.

Her comparisons to turtles and crustaceans signify nothing so much as alienness. No female character has yet had a line of dialogue. The bishop’s Indian guide speaks broken English, she tells us, deliberately, because he prefers its simplicity and sound. The bishop himself thinks in French and laments this desert’s dearth of olive oil and good wine.

This is just the kind of experience I was looking for when I opened this book, honestly. It confirms and stratifies what I already know, that there’s no expressing anything without wading across disconnect and alienation. The struggle to communicate is the study of otherness and loss.

I Bail on GoodReads

GoodReads is a social reading site I had come to be quite a fan of and used extensively to track what I read and wanted to read. The other day they were bought out by Amazon, a bookstore-devouring, everything-selling, future-eating juggernaut I do my level best to avoid interacting with whenever possible. I hemmed and hawed a bit, asked some people I trusted if I might be overreacting, but came to the conclusion, based on who I am and where my money comes from, that I should sever ties.

To that end, as soon as this post here gets syndicated over there (yes, I told GoodReads it could follow my blog, an indication of just how much fun I was having tracking my books in public where some mindless corporate algorithm could track everything I read and rub its hands together maniacally thinking about how much money it would make advertising to me based on that information), I’m deleting my account. I’m removing GoodReads from the sidebar of this blog. I have already removed it from Weightless Books.

And now we at Weightless and some others are thinking about how we might go aboutcreating something GoodReads-like that isn’t owned by our corporate overlords. If you’re interested, please join us.

The Coder

My reading of Benjamin Parzybok‘s excellent story from LCRW 21, “The Coder”, is live today at the Small Beer Press podcast. I worked hard and I’m quite proud of the result–every one of these readings I do, the audio quality and (I flatter myself) the delivery improve–so please go listen if you have time.

I love this story. I’ve been advocating for it to the Small Beer interns for years. It has this wry bizarro/surrealist tone which fits perfectly with the LCRW/Small Beer ethic, writers like Ray Vukcevich, Alan DeNiro and (yes) Kelly Link who are SBP’s bread and butter. It has interesting metafictional/Borgesian undertones, dealing with the influence of archetypal structure on reality; the cycle of life and death still applies, even in the sterile cubicle warrens of a software company. How to describe “The Coder” without giving too much away? To put it like Bob the annoying geek co-worker might: is it like Office Space meets The Matrix? Is it Funes the Memorious plus The Metamorphosis? Maybe. What I can say is that to me, it’s one of those stories that feels like it’s always existed notionally out in the ether, at least since cubicle warrens and coding began, waiting for somebody clever and talented enough to step up and be the medium through which the universe inscribes its processes on human cognition. Like one of those Michelangelo slaves.

Lots of people have tried to write this story, me included. We try, because they tell us “write what you know”, and what we know best–tiny, pathetic tragedy–is mindless corporate monotony. We fail because who cares?

So maybe what impresses me most is its capacity to turn the world’s most boringest occupation, computer programmer, into something mind-blowingly sublime. Sure, there are instances in film and fiction wherein programmers are made to appear awesome–The Matrix, Tron–but it’s not by writing code. Ready Player One and one million works of high anime follow the same path, glossing past the code in favor of what it produces, the virtual. “The Coder” does just the opposite. Nor am I counting all those scenes in all those thrillers where somebody hacks the CIA: I don’t call that sublime, I call it wankery. Okay, there’s that scene in The Social Network where ye sympathetic-ified zeitgeist-personifying supergenius Zuckerberg assembles a software social-dysfunction-demonstrating device to the sound of post-industrial Trent Reznor. That comes close. Maybe some of the Lone Gunmen bits in The X-Files count. Many have tried–I venture to call it a holy grail of latter-day geekdom–but nobody has pulled it off like this.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand and to a degree sympathize with the sentiment behind those CODE IS POETRY bumper-stickers. A complex thing well-designed to do its purpose is beautiful, and when it comes to software, it’s only the programmers who get to appreciate that beauty. As opposed to, say, suspension bridge engineering. This story gives non-coders a window on that mindset, a way to understand how code can be poetry.

Let it suffice to say that “The Coder” includes two instances, one a pseudo-JavaScript, the other a pseudo-PHP script, wherein code actually is poetry and fits perfectly into the structure and function of the story, revealing the hidden (terrifying?) truth that underneath, all poetry, all narrative, is code.

Now go listen.